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By juliaraewagner

It has been a little maddening to operate in a city where I do not speak the language. I've been able to get along fine with English and the Spanish that I know, but I would like to attest to the fact that Portuguese is not simply "Spanish with a Brazilian accent" as the Argentines often say.  It is always a bit sad to hear someone address you and not have the slightest idea of how to respond.

My friends have been great at teaching me some survival Portuguese. I can greet people and ask for general directions. I am okay at ordering simple things in restaurants, but its still interesting when the waiters start asking for difficult orders. At any rate, its a work in progress, as learning a language always is.

I've been interested to learn some new words in Brazilian Portuguese because its such a rich language with so many influences. My favorite word thus far has been saudades which has no translation into English, but roughly means the pleasant nostalgia one feels for past experiences or people. It can even refer to such things that have not yet occurred. My friends introduced the word to me when we were saying our goodbyes at the close of fall semester, but also used it to describe their excitement at the prsopect of me visiting in the next few months. Either way, its that warm, fuzzy feeling in the pit of your stomach that makes you want to jump around in excitment.

I think saudades is a perfect way of encapsulating how I feel about this past year abroad. I've had so many wonderful experiences and met so many special people, that thinking about any of them will always incite the warm, longing feeling of saudades. I will always have a sense of nostalgia for this year. One of the most important things I've learned, however, is that these experiences and lessons do not have to simply remain in the past as a memory. I can incorporate them into my daily life and allow them to live into the present and future. Just like saudades, the good feelings do not need to stop in the past, but can continue into the future.

As I visit my friends and new places around the world, I look forward to carrying these memories with me and making new memories in the future. Cheers to travel!

By juliaraewagner

On my way home from Buenos Aires, I decided to take one last stop in South America before heading back up North to start the summer. I made some amazing Brazilian friends during my semester abroad with GW Latin America, so I decided to visit them in their home city of Sao Paulo.

I arrived at the airport at 1AM, but the city I encountered was still bustling with life. My friends picked me up, ushered me into their car, and said, "get ready, we're going out!" I was impressed immediately by the city's enormity and vastness; everything  is so big and spread apart. I was also bamboozled by the winding streets and relieved to have my Paulista friends to lead me around.

My first night in Sao Paulo was comprised of drinks and tamaki, a japanese dish much like sushi, but bigger and better. Tamaki generally includes raw fish, rice, and a topping all wrapped up in a large cone-shaped cup of seaweed--resembling a sushi snow cone. It was developed by the enormous Japanese population that immigrated here in the last century, and still thrives in the Japanese neighborhood of Liberdade. Tamaki, however, is popular all over the city, and enjoyed by all as a typical Paulista dish.

Where some cities are known for their beaches and others for their monuments or arts, Sao Paulo is known for its food. Ever since my arrival, I've done nothing but eat my way through the city.

The next morning, I met my friends parents, who took us out for a typical Paulista Sunday specialty: feijoada. Feijoada is a dish from colonial times comprised of beef and pork stewed black beans accompanied with other cuts of pork and garlic sauted greens all over rice. A former vegetarian and bean enthusiast, my mouth was watering as I dug into this delicious dish. My friend asked if I needed anything changed, reminding me of the tradition of "jeitinho brasileiro" or "the Brazilian way," which involves accomadating to a guest's needs. Of course, changes in the dish were wholly unnecessary as I couldn't imagine altering such a tasty dish.

My foodie adventures took me to a delicious pizzeria, which only serves pizza made with tomato sauce imported from Italy. There I also tried a typical Brazilian dessert known as Petit Gateau, which consists of a soft chocolate cake filled with gooey chocolate sauce or dulce de leche and accompanied by a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream. I asked my friends why it carried the french name, and they had no idea. Since that night though, I've seen Petit Gateau featured on almost every restaurant menu.

Aside from food, I've had the most amazing coffee I've ever had in my life. My friend took me to her favorite coffee shop, where we spent an hour reading up on all of their featured blends before ordering. I decided to go with one of their "coffee experiments," in which I was tasked with investigating how drinking coffee with cheese or chocolate can change its taste. I took a sip of the delicious coffee they had brewed and tried a bit of chocolate before taking a second sip. To my surprise, the second sip had a completely different taste. I felt a similar sensation when I tried the experiement over with the cheese. I'm not sure that Starbucks coffee would necessarily warrant the same reaction.

Since my arrival less than a week ago, I've gone out to eat more amazing meals including delicious chinese, hamburgers, sushi, and more bowls of gelato than I can count. I didn't expect my stay in Sao Paulo to be a foodie's dream, but I'm glad I'm here!

By juliaraewagner

The beginning and end of our section in Buenos Aires was bookended by a stay at the downtown Hotel Bauen. Upon arriving, the hotel seemed like any other hotel in the city. It had a grand lobby, a cafeteria, and wifi.  Our country coordinator, however, was sure to put in the plug that the hotel was not just any ordinary hotel, but that it was in fact, a cooperative business. This means that the Bauen is owned and operated democratically. Every month, the workers meet and make decisions based on their collective opinion of the best plan of action for the hotel. This means that they collective agency over their own working conditions, salaries, and benefits as well.  Further, their profit does not feed in to one person's paycheck, but is either divided evenly or invested back into the hotel.

The Bauen used to operate as a for-profit hotel, under a standard business model. After the financial crisis of 2001, the hotel went under, leaving its employees out of work in a very rough economic climate rife with high unemployment and massive inflation. The workers at this moment decided that they would claim the property as their own and operate it through democratic means. It has been operating ever since as a cooperative business. The Bauen remains unstable because its land ownership continues to be disputed in the national court. Though they manage to pay the bills, they are always threatened with eviction. For instance, we made reservations one month in advance, with the caveat that the hotel might be shut down by the time we arrived.

The Hotel Bauen is not the only cooperatvie business operating in and around Buenos Aires; the city is full of them. Many sprang up during the past financial crisis and have kept hold because the economy has not been looking up in any spectacular way. Cooperatives have proven in some ways more stable here, as they allow their workers to trust each other and mandates that the businesses give back to their employees. Despite their strength and high level of participation, cooperatives have a lot of work to do in the legal sphere. The government has passed some laws to protect them and the properties that many of them have seized, but much work is still needed to ensure that many of these businesses stay open.

By juliaraewagner

This week marked the end of my semester-long trip abroad with IHP Cities of the 21st Century. It was full of tears, laughter, inspiring final lectures, and too many toasts to count.

For me, this marks the end of an entire year abroad that has taken me to three different continents and 9 countries. I've over 2 weeks in airports and on airplanes and I've slept in over 25 different beds. I've learned to say "Hey, how are you?" in 7 different languages and have tried 7 different national dishes. Nine very kind families have welcomed me into their homes and hundreds of others have welcomed me into their countries. I've visited two of the world's best coffee countries, two of the best wine countries, one of the most vegetarian-friendly countries, and one of the most meat heavy countries.

This past year means so much more than figures, however. Beyond the number, I've been able to see myself grow in relation to all of the places I've been. I know how I react to confusion, ambiguity, and fear; more importantly, I know I can handle these situations.  I am confident that I can get around most cities, and I know that it is okay to ask for directions if I am lost.

This year, I also found new places to call home, not just in the cities I've stayed in, but also with good friends who I've met along the way. I now have a place to stay in London, Amsterdam, Hong Kong, and La Paz. Someone has described it to me as being horizontally rooted, or having a place to call home in many different once.

I've already been able to experience these roots. Just two days ago, I said goodbye to my IHP friends to head over to my friends' homes in Sao Paulo. I met them while I was abroad last semester in Buenos Aires. It's nice to know that I have friends just about everywhere, and their friendship is too dear to quantify.

By juliaraewagner

As the fifth week in Buenos Aires rolled around and we began to wrap up our end-of-semester lessons, our country coordinator led us through an activity that I found really helpful in "reading" the city. She split us into groups and asked that we each identify four elements of the city, its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Many people have probably heard of this activity as the SWOT exercise and may have used in professional or team-building situations. In our context of urban planning, the exercise helped us to review what we'd studied this semester, but also revealed some interesting quandaries in relation to the city.

Buenos Aires' strengths were obvious. The city has a strong downtown, cheap transportation, a highly educated population, and strong political involvement. We soon noticed, however, that many of these benefits also lead to some issues of their own. For one, the strong downtown that has grown up around the Plaza de Mayo means insane traffic congestion. It is not uncommon to sit on a bus for more than an hour when coming in from downtown. Furthermore, the city lacks a strong road network that runs along the outskirts of the city; most roads leading from North to South run straight through downtown, only adding to the congestion. This has led to a severe division between North and South halves of the city, which is not only a physical, but cultural.

Though few would claim that the portenos' strong political involvement is a weakness, or even a threat, the framework upon which this involvement stands is deteriorating and is prone to collapse. Of the many parties that comprise the political representation in the country, most of these consider themselves "Peronists." Peronism is a political movement that takes its underlying values from the Peron's, perhaps the most popular political figures in all of Argentine history. Juan Peron served as the country's first populist president, and his wife, Eva Peron, won the hearts of the masses. Today, however, Peronism is a blanket statement, that nearly every politician claims in order to gain popular support, though it doesn't necessarily mean that he carries popular sentiment. Many Argentinians claim that this label allows politicians to say they represent one thing, while their policies say another.

Another point of contention in our discussion was the villas, the infamous informal settlements that run along the outskirts of the city. Many have labeled these settlements as a threat to the city. They are known as hotbeds for crime, the black market, and illegal immigrants. Still, further investigations into the villas have revealed that property values are worth the same as some of the most posh neighborhoods in the city. Many legal immigrants as well as people moving in from the outer provinces of Argentina populate these areas because a municipal law requires people lacking strong familial connections in the city from renting their own property. Furthermore, the villas each support their own micro-economies, which subsist despite their lack of formal recognition. Under this light, the villas seem less like a threat and more like an opportunity for Buenos Aires to expand and integrate these densly urbanized areas.

It is discussions like these that have propelled my classes these past four months. Deciphering the strengths, weaknesses, threats, and opportunities in these cities has been incredibly informative and eye-opening. Nothing is ever as simple as it appears at face value, but that makes this field of study vibrant and interesting. I will carry this with me as I continue to "read" more cities.

By juliaraewagner

During this past year abroad, I've had to navigate a solid lifetime's worth of awkward conversations with host families as well as other people who I've met regarding my perceptions of their countries. When this question rolls into conversation, I usually respond with some iteration of the following:

"Oh I just love the people here in [insert country name here]. And the [insert popular national dish here] is so great too!"

It's not for lack of wonderful things in each country that propels me to give this bland response; it's just that developing an understanding for a place takes a lot of time and reflection. I was talking to my homestay brother the other day, however, and he called me out on my typical PC response, saying, "No, really. Why do you even like it here in Buenos Aires?"

I stuttered for a moment, collecting my thoughts. I had never really been forced to articulate what I find so magical about this city, but I'm glad that my host brother prodded me. The following was my response:

"I love the way that every woman here whether 16 or 76 commits to wearing platform shoes because she is not afraid of expressing herself.

I love the pink light that shines on the city in the late afternoon and how it makes the buildings pop in contrast with one another.

I love that while the city is always bustling, people always take enough time to  sit down in a cafe to drink their cup of coffee, rather than carrying it out into the street.

I love how everyone grows gardens on their balconies.

I love how people will take their 3 year olds out to dinner at midnight.

I love how people protest in the streets every single day, if for no other reason than just because they have the political freedom to do so.

I love how graffiti is legal and how every spare wall is painted with a beautiful mural.

I love that, if you look hard enough, you can find an immigrant from almost any country in the world.

I love that the city is devoted to its artists and even subsidizes many cultural events, making them easily accessible with my student budget.

I love that of all the traditions that they've stolen from their Italian immigrant population, they've really managed to get gelato right.

I love that everyone from the Pope to the President addresses people with the word 'che'."

If it had been any other person, I think my response would have been too much information, but as an Argentine, my host brother had a poetic appreciation for it. He smiled and said, "that's the answer I was looking for."

After this yearlong adventure, I am booked to return home in exactly one week from today. In addition to a suitcase full of souvenirs, an SD card of photos, and a year's worth of memories, I hope to carry with me the small beauties of Buenos Aires. I only hope that I can integrate their obsession for art, their staunch insistence for expression, and their appreciation for taking time for small moments of the day.


It's been a beautiful week here in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I have enjoyed getting settled back into the city that I came to love after spending a whole semester here last year with the GW Latin America exhange program.

It has been fascinating to see the city in a whole new light. Last semester, I studied at a local university, taking classes in their International Affairs department, and this semester, I've been taking courses on the politics, planning and culture of cities in a classroom with 32 other students from US universities. As such, the dynamics and the structures of these two classrooms have been distinct and each has had its pluses and minuses.

For instance, learning in an Argentine classroom gave me a very clear understanding of the nuances of the culture. The information that I heard was not tailored to me as the audience, but rather was the unbridled Argentine perspective. One of my most rewarding classes last semester was on the history of the Americas, in which one of the sections was a history of the US. It was fascinating to hear how a foreigner interpreted the notable moments of US history. My professor had a lot to say about racsim in the US; he also thought that Obama was pretty WASP-y.  Additionally, it was also the first time I was expected to memorize all of the US presidents.

This semester, my classroom has been much more experience-oriented. Our facilitators have given us incredible access to academics, professionals, and locals in all aspects of the city. Our most recent adventure included exploring the city's hidden wholesale district, Once, where the owners of all the city's posh boutiques purchase their base materials. Not only is it a great place to shop for some bargains, it has a lot to say about the immigrant culture of Argentina. Like the US, this country has been a landing point for immigrants from all over the city for centuries.   Some of the most recent waves have settled in Once, to sell their wares in the stores and on the streets. In under an hour and within a 5 block radius, our group was able to interview people from Peru, Bolivia, Ghana, Senegal, Ukrain, Israel, and more. I was very excited to use some of my Wolof greetings that I'd learned during my stay in Senegal. And here I thought I'd never be able to use Wolof again!

Needless to say, its been a year full of distinctive and unexpected learning experiences. Often times, the most telling lessons have appeared between the lines of my textbook lessons or even outside of the classroom. I look forward to brining these little lessons back and applying them during my last year at GW!

By juliaraewagner

My time in Senegal has had me thinking a lot about cultural relativism. During my stay, I faced some pretty alternative manners of thinking and living that greatly contrasted with my own. When I encountered such traditions and values, I wrote them off as simple differences in culture. I was adamant about not imposing my own assumptions of what is right and wrong upon a culture that I was just trying to observe and better understand without judgement. Now that I have left Senegal for the last leg of my trip in Buenos Aires, Argentina, I've been reflecting on my experience in West Africa and trying to piece together my opinions on the experience.

One situation that really challenged my assumptions was a discussion about polygamy that I had with one leader of a feminist organization in Dakar. She had said that many educated women often seek to join a polygamist relationship because the system offers them opportunities. For one, as wife #3 or #4, the educated woman would be free to get a job of her choice without worry that she is not caring for her husband. She may also be a more attractive match for a man seeing that she can work and support herself. Thus, female education does nothing to threaten the institution of polygamy at this point in time. The fact that many educated women still seek polygamist relationships speaks to how comfortable the general populous is with the idea of polygamy.

In contrast, I entered the country with many reservations  about the idea of polygamy. In my eyes, the institution exacerbates inequalities between the genders and perpetuates them. Hearing what women had to say about polygamy was unsettling for me, but a healthy dose of cultural relativism. I am currently working on discovering where the line of what is culturally appropriate and what is simply right or wrong lies. In my eyes, polygamy is still a perpetuation of the patriarchy, regardless of whether the women agree with the system or not. But it is also important to consider whether the people and institutions whom I evaluate even consider their values on the same terms. I will have to continue to reflect on this.

By juliaraewagner

It's hard to believe another month has already gone by! We are already leaving for Buenos Aires this weekend! Our final week in Dakar was a busy one, finishing up our country case studies and completing some clarifying interviews and observations for our semester-long research projects. Needless to say, I am very happy to be spending spring break in Saly, Senegal, a dusty and bustling beach town about 2 hours south of Dakar. We've had a very relaxing two days full of the perfect balance between adventure and down-time.

Even getting here was quite an experience. As students on a budget, we decided to rent the most affordable type of vehicle, the Senegalese car rapide. Resembling a massive psychedelic soda can on 4 wheels, the car rapide is the most convenient and cheapest way to get around Senegal. The ride was a bit bumpy and more than a bit dusty, but we made it to the beach without too much incident and a lot of laughs as we were tossed around in the bumpy  backseat. 

We've decided to spend the week at a low-key (read: inexpensive) hostel outside of town called Boabob Belge. Its run by a bubbly Belgian woman who bears the easy, airy personality of an expat who's found her niche abroad. She sings in a Senegalese drumming group in her spare time, and giggles about her various stories over the years. She has been very helpful in getting us situated.

Yesterday, we left to pick up some beach clothes, but found that all of the touristy stores were far too expensive for our student budgets. Our lovely hostel hostess sent us to the next town over to the local market to pick out our own fabrics to have tailored instead. We traveled via horse and buggy to save a couple of pennies. The whole process was definitely a bit dustier and sweatier than a taxi would have been, but I'm pretty sure we had more fun that way.

The lesson from the past couple of days has been to accept the challenge of traveling on a budget. It forces you to go off the beaten (and more comfortable) path, but definitely leaves more room for adventure and serendipity, which is what travel abroad is all about.

By juliaraewagner

Our latest project has been to create a case study about the rural to urban migration patterns occurring here in Senegal, so this past weekend, we hopped on a bus to a small village within Toubacouta, located next to the Gambian River delta just north of The Gambia. It took 7 hours, 4 pit stops, about a hundred potholes, and one flat tire, but we finally made it to a welcoming group of drumming villagers who were very excited to host students for the weekend.

I was introduced to my home-stay mom, Awa, in the dark because we arrived well into the night and the village had no electricity. We were lucky to have a full moon as I helped her cook dinner under the night sky. After initial introductions, I ran out of Wolof phrases, so we mostly smiled and sat in silence as she directed her niece and daughter around kitchen. I shredded lettuce as Awa and the girls grilled some onions in a pot over the fire. They found it funny that I was so infatuated with the baby goats that were hopping about the outdoor kitchen space. After dinner, we sat under the stars and listened to the radio. Then my host mom ushered me to bed, where I fell asleep next to my new host sister, Oli. 

I woke up the next morning to a small stampede of farm animals being herded through the bedroom into the front yard. I had to laugh as I mused about how absurdly different this way of life was than my own. The differences were stark as everything from manner of dress, to gender roles, to simple body language was jumbled across cultural lines. My friends and I definitely had some interesting efforts when trying to explain basic needs, like going to the bathroom. For example, the villagers have separate toilets for #1 and #2. I was happy to walk around with my host sister because she usually deflected any random questions people asked me in Wolof. When she wasn't around, I would just revert to dancing as a means to connect with people with whom I didn't share a common language.